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Northwestern vs. Illinois preview: Three matchups to watch

How much you will need to watch is up for debate.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern is looking to finish the season strong after winning its last six games. In two days, the Wildcats travel to Champaign in a bid to get 9 wins. Here are three matchups to watch in Saturday’s game between Northwestern and Illinois.

Ricky Smalling & Malik Turner vs. the Northwestern Secondary

If Illinois is going to hurt Northwestern, it will likely come from the passing attack. Most of Illinois’s offensive yards have come through the air this season, with 1,959 of their total yards coming from receptions and just 1,167 on the ground. Individually, Ricky Smalling and Malik Turner are two of the receivers most targeted for those receptions; however, it’s not like the offense is good. The pair are only averaging 45.0 and 32.1 yards per game respectively.

This offense has posed a minimal threat this season. The Illini have failed to score more than 20 points in 8 of its games. Illinois will also be missing Mike Dudek, Mike Epstein, and Bennet Williams. If Illinois were scheduled for early in the season, it might have had an opportunity to make plays against an equally injured Northwestern secondary. However, Illinois will face a very different Northwestern secondary than a couple months ago.

The backfield impressed against Minnesota last weekend with three interceptions and two pass break ups – both by Godwin Igwebuike. The secondary held Minnesota to just 2-11 completions and 3.9 yards per attempt, leaving quarterback Demry Croft with a 0.6 quarterback rating. This defense is coming of their first shutout since the 2015’s Minnesota game and has continued to perform stronger and stronger as the season has progressed. Montre Hartage has been solid, and any deficiencies with the second cornerback have been made up by Kyle Queiro and Jared McGee. The solid pass rush also helps.

Justin Jackson vs. Remaining Unbroken Records (Technically Illinois Front Seven)

Even with the recent success of Northwestern’s passing game, Justin Jackson will finish his regular season career as the heart and soul of the Wildcats’ offense. At this point, there appears to be few defenses that can stop him, much less an Illinois rushing defense ranked 112th in S&P.

Therefore, we hope this contest isn’t going to be Jackson vs. the Illinios front seven, but rather Jackson vs. the records he is so close to breaking. The senior running back is already 1st in Northwestern history in career rushing yards, rushing attempts and yards from scrimmage. He’s also the second player in Big Ten history to have 1,000 rushing yards in four different seasons.

Jackson may be able collect a few more records in his final two games. Although he most likely won’t be able to log the most rushing yards in Big Ten history, he is just 1 yard behind Montee Ball and 160 behind Anthony Thompson. If he is able to surpass Ball and Thompson, he’ll finish his career in 3rd. Perhaps the most notable - and most likely - record Jackson could break against Illinois is the Northwestern rushing touchdowns record. He currently shares the record with Damian Anderson with 38 touchdowns and is just one away from having the record to himself. To say Jackson’s career has been impressive would be an understatement, but it’d be fun to see him break even more records in the final regular season game of his career.

Watching a 22nd Ranked Northwestern Football Team vs. Studying for Finals

Screw the quarter system. Sure, finals are technically just a few days away after this game, but a 22nd ranked football team is a perfect excuse to take a study break. Odds are you have a midterm every other week anyway and spend the majority of your quarter studying. Why not enjoy the last regular season game of the year with Thanksgiving leftovers, considering you’ll probably be on the couch in a food coma anyway?

After the roller coaster that was the beginning of the season, this team has proven itself as fun to watch – even if a little anxiety was induced along the way. If both teams’ recent play is any indication of the outcome of this game, it should be one of the more relaxing and enjoyable contests of the season. However, if you’re looking for some excitement, I think any Wildcat fan knows at this point that you can never be so sure of a “surefire win,” and therefore could witness some unexpected, old-school, nerve-racking play. Or you could watch your school’s rival get completely pasted. Either way, football over finals. Always.